03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let's Be on the Right Side of History

After Joe Wilson's famous "You lie" interruption of the president's address to Congress on health care, there was a rush by some to include costly and onerous verification procedures to exclude immigrants from the health care system. Some were advocating spending millions of dollars to catch just a handful of potentially ineligible immigrants. The furor had nothing to do with policy; undocumented immigrants had long been ineligible for the health care reforms being advocated in Congress. This was pure politics. But just as the extremists misread the policy, they misread the politics.

Faced now with an incredible opportunity to reform health care, we must ensure we are on the right side of history and our truest values of inclusion. Currently, laws prohibit legal immigrants from accessing Medicaid for five years. This must stop, and shouldn't be carried on into the health care reform bill adopted by Congress. All hard working, taxpaying residents should have equal access to the health care programs.

Those on a rush to alienate constituencies who care about an inclusive America do so at a perilous risk to their future. The community most affected by this exclusion is the Latino community, the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. Latinos also happen to have the highest rate of uninsured, which exacerbates the situation. But that hasn't stopped some from using immigrants as a scapegoat in the health care reform debate. In the 2008 presidential election, Latino voters in six key states, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, New Mexico, Virginia and Nevada, were critical to the margin of victory for president. Barack Obama won two-thirds of Hispanic voters in 2008. Exit polls showed many of those felt excluded and unwelcome by the rhetoric of some of those on the far right of the political spectrum.

However, the political price to be paid for discrimination is not merely amongst one demographic. Despite the hateful rhetoric of the tea baggers, most Americans still believe in equality and justice. According to recent polling done for the Herndon Alliance, Healthcare for American Now, America's Voice and the National Immigration Law Center, six in ten American voters think legal immigrants have a positive effect on America. Further, the same research reveals that two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) agree that access to health care should be guaranteed to legal immigrants. It seems most of America is on the right side of history.

There has always been tension between America's inclusive and exclusive instincts. One can imagine these competing values as symbolized, on one hand, by the Statue of Liberty and our incredible diversity and on the other hand, by the troubling debate in an attempt to discriminate against residents of this country. Our noble instincts and values are often tested by short term insecurities and politically motivated scapegoating.

Denying hardworking, tax-paying immigrants the same rights and benefits as anyone else, including the same health care programs enjoyed by others, is bad policy because we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. When we leave one community behind, the result is born by all of us with greater long-term health costs and higher rates of disease overall. Why deny people access to the care that will enable them to get and stay healthy? It furthers no logical or rational policy objective, but rather can only be explained by irrational fear, mistrust and a desire to exclude.

It is time for Congress to put an end to the five-year bar delaying immigrant access to Medicaid. Let's not base our public policy on fear and mistrust, but rather on the bedrocks of American democracy, justice and equality. I urge us all not to bow to the worst fears and pressures to discriminate, exclude, or turn any group of people into scapegoats.

Inclusion is morally right, it's the best policy and increasingly it will be necessary for political survival.